Stop the presses and call the government spokespeople back from Martha’s Vineyard.
The corporate media have discovered that the United States is radically outsourcing national security and sensitive intelligence operations. Cable news channels breathlessly report on the "groundbreaking," "exclusive" Washington Post series, Top Secret America, a two-year investigation by Dana Priest and William Arkin. No doubt there is some important stuff in this series. Both Arkin and Priest have done outstanding work for many years on sensitive, life-or-death subjects. And that is one of the main reasons why this series has, thus far, been incredibly disappointing. Its greatest accomplishment is forcing a discussion onto corporate TV years after it would have had an actual impact.
The misplaced hype surrounding the Post series speaks volumes to the ahistorical nature of US media culture. Next week, if the New York Times published a story on how there were no WMDs in Iraq, there would no doubt be cable news shows that would act like it was an earth-moving revelation delivered by Moses on the stone tablet of exclusive, groundbreaking journalism.
The Post does a fine job of exploring the scope of the privatization and providing some new or updated statistics. It also produces a few zingers from senior officials like Defense Secretary Robert Gates. "This is a terrible confession," Gates said in Tuesday’s installment. "I can’t get a number on how many contractors work for the Office of the Secretary of Defense." It was also hilarious to read CIA director Leon Panetta—who just gave Blackwater a brand new $100 million global CIA contract—act like he is anything other than a contractor addict. "For too long, we’ve depended on contractors to do the operational work that ought to be done" by CIA employees, Panetta told the Post. But replacing them "doesn’t happen overnight. When you’ve been dependent on contractors for so long, you have to build that expertise over time." Panetta told the Post he was concerned about contracting with corporations, whose responsibility "is to their shareholders, and that does present an inherent conflict." I wonder if the Blackwater guys working for Panetta can contain their laughter reading those statements. I imagine them taping a post-it note that says "Kick me" on Panetta’s back and then chuckling about it with the Lockheed contractors.
What is perhaps most telling about the Post series is how little detail is provided on the most sensitive operations performed by contractors: assassinations, torture, rendition and operational planning.
In reality, there is little in the Post series that, in one way or another, has not already been documented by independent journalist Tim Shorrock, author of the (actually) groundbreaking book, Spies for Hire: The Secret World of Intelligence Outsourcing. With the exception of some details and a lot of color, much of what I have read in the Post‘s series thus far I had already read in Shorrock’s book and his previous reporting for Salon, Mother Jones and The Nation. Shorrock was the reporter who first revealed the extent of the radical privatization of intel operations. In 2007, Shorrock obtained and published a document from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence showing that 70 percent of the US intelligence budget was spent on private contractors. Shorrock was way out in front of this story and, frankly, corporate media ignored it. When I was working on my book on Blackwater, which first came out in 2007, Shorrock provided me with some crucial insights into the world of privatized intelligence. Shorrock remains a valued colleague and source and the Post is just wrong to not credit him for the work he has done on this story. Everyone should read Shorrock’s latest story which includes an exclusive photo tour through the private intelligence community.